You may not like GMOs but farmers do

A cotton farmer in India

A cotton farmer in India

I’ve got a lot of respect for some critics of genetically-modified crops, like Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists and my eco-rabbi, Fred Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation.

When Gary Hirschberg, the founder of Stonyfield Farms, argues that foods containing GMOs should be labeled, I’m inclined to agree.

Then there are those anti-GMO activists who distort science and worse.

Vandana Shiva, the Indian activist and scientist, has helped to propagate the myth that genetically-modified cotton has driven Indian farmers to suicide.  “270,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide since Monsanto entered the Indian seed market,” she has said. “It’s a genocide.” A very strong word, genocide, but she’s wrong, as this May 2013 article in Nature demonstrates.*

The claims about the suicides of Indian farmers, which have spread far and wide, are particularly noxious because of evidence that indicates that farmers in India and elsewhere are gradually embracing GMOs. So, at least, says an annual report from an NGO, which I covered on a story that ran the other day in The Guardian.

Here’s how the story begins:

The campaigns against genetically modified foods are unrelenting, and they are having an impact on business. The retailer chain Whole Foods plans to label and limit genetically-modified products in its stores, and General Mills recently announced that Cheerios are GMO-free and will be labelled as such. State legislators in Maine and Connecticut have voted to require mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOS, provided that nearby states follow suit.

But even as consumers, brands and governments debate GMOs, farmers around the world – who, presumably, know what’s good for them – are growing more biotech crops than ever, a new report says.

More than 18 million farmers in 27 countries planted biotech crops on about 175m hectares of land last year, a modest 3% increase in global biotech crop land over 2013, according to an annual survey released by a non-profit group called the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). Biotech crop land area has grown every year since commercial planting began in 1996, the report says.

“Millions of small and larger farmers in both industrial and developing countries have adopted this technology for one main reason: It deliver benefits,” says Clive James, the author of the report and ISAAA’s founder and chairman emeritus.

Now the fact that farmers are growing more biotech crops does not settle the debate over GMOS–far from it. Farmers could be following the herd. (Actually, it’s ranchers who follow the herd.) They are subject to marketing, like the rest of us. Or they could be thinking short-term, and pursuing their own narrow self-interest. That said, their voices ought to be a bigger part of the conversation about GMOs. Farmers, after all, can choose between biotech and conventional seeds. Biotech seeds are said to be more expensive. If more farmers choose them, they must be delivering benefits.

And yet, as I write,

…despite the rapid adoption of biotech crops, the report shows that the most common argument on their behalf, advanced by companies such as Monsanto – that they will be needed to feed a growing and hungry planet – remains unproven, to say the least.

Like Margaret Mellon, I recoil when I hear the phrase “feed the world” in connection with the GMO debate. The problem, as she argues, is that the “feed the world” cliche conflates two distinct issues.  One is global crop production. The other is hunger alleviation. Production is just one side of the equation, and “grow baby grow” is the food industry equivalent of the energy industry’s  ”drill baby drill.” It fails to take into account the many other ways of helping to the world to feed itself—-by spreading best agricultural practices to poor countries, by reducing food waste, by curbing the global appetite for meat, by ending wasteful subsidies for biofuels that divert corn, soy and sugar cane from food to fuel.

You can read the rest of my story here.

* Here is Vandana Shiva’s response to The Nature article. I’m not persuaded.

When changing a lightbulb isn’t enough…

 

What have you done lately about climate change?

In the last two weeks, about 700 Americans – with more to come – have been arrested in front of the White House, calling on President Obama to block the construction of the $7 billion, 1700-mile Keystone pipeline project that will bring Canadian tar sands oil to largest refineries in the United States.

They include Bill McKibben, the writer, activist and founder of 350.org, who led the protests; James Hansen, NASA’s leading climate scientist; Gus Speth, who lead the Council on Environmental Quality under President Carter and went on to become dean of the Yale School of Forestry; Greenpeace executive director Phil Radford; actresses Daryl Hannah and Margot Kidder; and my friend and rabbi, Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregration in Bethesda.

Standing behind them are the nation’s leading environmental groups–Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Funds, Friends of the Earth, the National Wildlife Federation and others. In a letter to Obama, they described the Keystone pipeline ruling as “perhaps the biggest climate test you face between now and the election.”

“There is not an inch of daylight between our policy position on the Keystone XL pipeline, and those of the very civil protesters being arrested daily outside the White House,” the groups said.

There are strong arguments for and against the pipeline, which we’ll get to in a moment, but first, a few words about McKibben and  the protestors. I went to the White House to talk with them because I share their belief that climate change is not just another issue, but the defining issue of our time. To be sure, it’s not an issue that mobilizes people, at least not yet, for a number of reasons: You can’t see carbon dioxide pollution, climate science is complex (but clear in its basics), global warming is a slow moving threat and the troubled U.S. economy has crowded virtually every other concern off stage since the summer of 2008. [click to continue...]

Ancient wisdom on sustainability

Today’s guest post comes from Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Md.

Fred is my rabbi, and he’s a great guy; he was “green” before green was cool. In 19990, during his  junior year at Brandeis, Fred set off on a 3,300-mile walk from Los Angeles to New York as part of a project called the Global Walk for a Livable World. Today, he serves on the national boards of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) and as Chair of Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light. Fred believes, as I do, that clergy of all faiths can and should play a greater role when it comes to teaching people about the environment, and the impact of their consumption.

This is a letter that Fred wrote last spring in the Adat Shalom newsletter under the headline “You Can’t Take It With You”:

Recently, while wrapping up the Book of Leviticus, we read Parashat Behar. This Torah portion is basically one chapter, Lev. 25 — and it’s at the very top of my list of favorite biblical passages. Behar outlines the every-seven-year Sabbatical (Shmita) during which the fields lie fallow, and the every-fiftieth-year Jubilee (Yovel) when debts are forgiven, slaves are freed, and land is returned to its original owner. It’s the Jewish source for the notion that “you can’t take it with you”.

Leaving aside the scholarly debate over how thoroughly these teachings were practiced and enforced during Temple times, as a values statement there are many vital messages for us today in this teaching, from the political to the personal. Four short examples: [click to continue...]